The Centre on Monday told the Madras High Court that fewer international flights were being operated to airports in Tamil Nadu under the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM), aimed at evacuating Indians stranded abroad due to the COVID-19 lockdown, because of a specific request made by the State government to restrict their numbers.
Justices R. Subbiah and Krishnan Ramasamy were told by Additional Solicitor General G. Rajagopalan that many Tamils were, however, flown to nearby destinations such as Bengaluru and Kochi, from where they could easily travel to their hometowns in Tamil Nadu, either by domestic flights or by road, after obtaining e-passes from the authorities concerned.
The submission was made in response to a public interest litigation petition filed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), represented by its senior counsel P. Wilson, who said that of the 47,514 repatriation requests received by the Ministry of External Affairs, with a specific plea to travel to Tamil Nadu, only 19,558 people had been repatriated, as on June 25.
He claimed that over 158 flights would have to be operated for evacuating the rest of the 27,956 people to Tamil Nadu, and hence, it was not right on the part of the State government to have requested the Centre to operate only two flights a day to Chennai and one each to Tiruchi, Madurai and Coimbatore, to facilitate observance of the protocol.
On his part, Additional Advocate General S.R. Rajagopal urged the court to grant him a day’s time to receive instructions from the State government on the Centre’s claim that it was the former which had requested that the number of VBM flights, being operated to various international airports in Tamil Nadu, be restricted, since it was also handling other chartered flights.
State’s web portal
He said that even before the Centre could come up with a standard operating procedure for repatriating Indians, the State government had set up the web portal www.nonresidenttamil.org to ascertain details of Tamils stranded abroad for making arrangements for their return.
The portal was set up on April 30 but the Centre issued the SOP only on May 5, he said.
It was also brought to the notice of the court that as on June 15, 61 flights from 17 countries (the U.A.E., Kuwait, Malaysia, Oman, the U.S., Bangladesh, Philippines, the U.K., Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Italy, Thailand, Maldives and Mauritius) had brought 9,625 Indian nationals to airports in Chennai, Tiruchi, Madurai and Coimbatore.
Further, 669 passengers travelled by the sea from Colombo to Thoothukudi, and 700 more from Maldives to Thoothukudi, through INS Jalashwa, on June 2 and June 7, respectively. Including these 1,369 passengers who reached sea ports, a total of 10,994 persons had returned to Tamil Nadu from various foreign countries, as on June 15, he said.
After hearing all of them, the judges adjourned the case to Tuesday for further hearing.